Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Joyce. Dubliners. The boarding house

The boarding house p.56.

 

Note that Two gallants, The boarding house and Counterparts must be seen under an intertextual angle.

 

Characters

A triad, constituted by Mrs. Mooney, her daughter Polly and Mr. Doran, the main characters

Mary, the servant.

All the other characters (Mr. Mooney, Jack Mooney, the other residents, etc.) are only mentioned.

Setting

Mrs. Mooney’s boarding house, in Hardwicke Street, a respectable district in North Dublin.

Time

“A bright Sunday morning in early summer”, from seventeen minutes past eleven to just before twelve noon.

Yet, the time frame of the story is far more intricate than that, since Joyce manipulates past, present and future, intertwining them into one single moment of acute crisis.

 

Composition

The story falls, very neatly, into six sections.

Introduction, pp.56-58

Mrs. Mooney’s point of view, pp.58-60

Mr. Doran’s point of view, pp.60-61

Mr. Doran & Polly, pp.60-63

Polly’s point of view, pp.63-64

 

Narrative

An excellent Joycean multifaceted piece of narrative.

Basically a third-person narrative, with an omniscient narrator in the introduction, who then yields to complete internal focalization for the main three characters, consecutively.

Note:  only two actual occurrences of direct speech, plus a few quotations in italics.

One of the interests of the story lies in the quasi absence of direct communication between the characters within story-time. Almost everything is related through the characters’ streams of consciousnesses, which emphasizes the power of the cold eye cast on the Irish society by Joyce. The characters do not actually speak to each other, but remember what has already been said or project what they are going to say in the future or what might be said in the future. This sometimes sounds like a rehearsal, as if the characters were actually preparing to act in a play, and gives the story an even colder hue, emphasizing the characters’ imprisonment in an immutable set of social conventions and models of behaviour.

 

Development

One is tempted to compare Two gallants and The boarding house, because of the obvious reversal of the victimizer/victim pair. In Two gallants, two men victimize one woman, whereas in The boarding house, one man is victimized by two women. The odious Mrs. Mooney, whose character is placed from the very beginning of the story, under the bloody sign of the butcher business, is described two pages later, as someone who deals with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat, and can be seen then as a female version of the no less odious Corley, with whom she shares the same unbreakable self-esteem and way to stare at things and people: Mrs. Mooney (…) watched, (58) Mrs. Mooney glanced, (59) Mrs. Mooney surveyed herself (60). No wonder if she runs a boarding house, an institution that is redolent, because of the cleaver, of a chopping board. More, the image she gets of herself on page 60, with her big florid face, is the ultimate reference to her blood-and-meat ascendancy.

No wonder, either, if she treats her daughter like meat to be sold ; Polly’s description on page 62, as she is about to be seduced and deflowered, confirms that: the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. Last, the fact that her resident young men spoke of her as The Madam (57) is a direct reference to a brothel’s mistress and paves the way to how she will deal with her daughter.

Polly’s character is revealed first through the song she sings: I’m a…naughty girl, which is directly related to her readiness as far as sex is concerned, and by the two oxymorons that Joyce uses to qualify her: perverse madonna (57) and wise innocence (59). Her silent communication with her mother (her mother’s persistent silence could not be misunderstood 58) does not only feed the climate of non-communication that runs through the story, but the sense of an almost genetic flaw in the family: that of the butcher, inherited from her father and grandfather. As the latest representative of the species, her business is also one of flesh and something definitely carnal.  She is the willing accomplice of her mother’s designs, and her strategies appear in Mr. Doran’s memories of their affair on page 62. As for her mother, her sense of vision is insisted on: dried her eyes, looking-glass, her eyes, looked at, regarded, sight,visions, saw, gaze (63-64.)

Conversely, Mr. Doran, their victim, does not only wear glasses, but suffers from accesses of blindness: a mist gathered on his glasses, (60) his glasses became so dimmed with moisture (63.) He has been trapped by the two women: He had a notion that he was being had, once you are married you are done for 61.)

The social satire, in the story, is of course about marriage, a recurrent theme in Dubliners. Joyce is convinced of the nefarious aspects of marriage in a country where divorce is impossible, and the short relation of Mrs. Mooney’s unhappy wedlock in the opening lines of the story is quite explicit about it. The social satire, which shows not only one but all three characters trapped into indulging in various strategies about marriage, is doubled by the religious satire: Mrs. Mooney wants to have her business concluded before going to mass, Mr. Doran evokes the painful memories of his recent confession on page 60 and he leaves Polly crying on the bed on page 63, moaning softly: O my God! Similarly, Mr. Doran is employed by a great Catholic wine merchant.

 

What is also remarkable in the story is the narrative, with three distinct internal focalizations, one for each of the main three characters. The stream-of-consciousness technique can be felt here at its best, with an abundance of third-person pronouns that, paradoxically, focusses the reader on what happens in the characters’ minds as if the first person pronoun was used. Joyce also plays with the indirect speech, shifting from direct to indirect, as on pages 61-62 (- O, Bob! Bob! What am I to do? What am I to do at all? She would put an end to herself, she said.,) as if in order to reinforce the abovementioned effect.

Also remarkable are the temporal shifts in the story; the passage from the introduction/setting, with its definite omniscient-narrator characteristics, to the specific time of the plot on page 58 first. Then all the slight passages from present to past, or future, in the inner monologues of Mrs. Mooney and Mr. Doran: Mrs. Mooney begins with the reconstruction of her past interview with her daughter to the speech she is about to deliver to Mr. Doran. Mr. Doran remembers his confession before imagining what would happen if he did not agree to marry Polly, then he remembers his years of service before wondering about his future with Polly. After Polly’s arrival, he remembers what has happened between them.

Last, in the ultimate passage, Polly graciously mingles past and future: her memories gradually giving place to hopes and visions of the future, while forgetting everything about the present.

 

The boarding house is one of the best stories of Dubliners, both for the keenness of Joyce’s eye in his satire of the Irish society of his time and for the talent that he demonstrates in his narrative technique by going from one subtle shift in the points of view to another in the temporal frame of the story. Its other interest is to function intertextually with Two gallants, and to a lesser extent, with Counterparts.



20/11/2009
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